Comayagua prison fire has killed not less than 355 helpless inmates! In a country were prisons are overcrowded with inmates beyond its capacity, such a calamity cannot be prevented by any fire fighting measures. Honduras Government tried its best to save the hundreds of inmates who got trapped within the cells. But it took hours to get the keys of the cells to rescue the people who were alive. More than half of the inmates were undertrials or suspected criminals.
The above incident should be an eye opener for the prison authorities all over the world! Most of the countries continue to have overcrowded jails for several decades. And prisoners live in the most inhuman environment in many places. Majority of inmates in jails are people who are yet to be convicted.
This is the right time to push for prison reforms!
In India, this is the right time to push for prison reforms not only because an incident like this has happened in the far away land of Comayagua, but also as a positive response to certain instances of VVIPs being afforded an opportunity to experience confinement.
Years back. One day when I reached the college I found that our old auditorium is getting renovated. It was in a very bad shape. Poor acoustics, no proper ventilation, very few fans, rough floor, and a very bad stage. We, the students were very happy and thanked the Principal. Someone commented: “Finally the college development fee has been released for a good cause by the Management”. Immediately our lecturer confided, ‘You know, our 'Leader' is visiting the college next week’! That’s why the auditorium and also the toilets (never painted in the last 30 years of its existence) got spruced up for the'Leader' and his escorts.
Another day I saw a flurry of activity on the main road near my house: Bulldozers, road metals, tar boilers, road rollers, and hundreds of labourers. It seemed they are on a war footing to convert a large stretch of potholes to a road worth for transportation. We used to say: There are no potholes in our district, because there are no roads. In a few days, we found out why there was a radical transformation in governance by the authorities. The National Leader is travelling through that road from the nearest helipad to inaugurate the centenary celebrations of an institution. Really great! We had thought that the election manifestoes are full of false promises. But our assumptions were wrong. The manifesto had said: ‘Vote for this leader. He will lead the country to development!’ Well said!
Now, this is the time to spruce up our prisons too. You know the reason!
Let us see some statistics from India. There are about 1400 jails in the country, with a capacity of 3,07,052. But actual number of inmates are 3,76,969. This is as per data published in 2010 by the National Crimes Record Bureau.
66.5% are under trials!
That means, charges against 66.5% of inmates are not proved yet. Only 32.9% are convicts (those found guilty) per as per data as on 31st Dec 2010. And the rest are detenues (persons under preventive detention). 46% of under trial prisoners are in the age group of 18 to 30. How many more number of judges are required to decide on the fate of these under trials? Thousands of persons continue to live in prison for several years waiting for justice from the trial court.
Overcrowding of prisons is a global problem. As per the statistics of International Centre for Prison Studies, London the rate of imprisonment in India per one hundred thousand of population is one of the lowest in the world. Above data clearly reveals that the overcrowding in Indian prisons is due to the larger number of under trial prisoners. The statistics of the last one decade gathered by the National Crimes Records Bureau reveals that on an average 68% of prisoners are under trials.
Ensuring reasonable dignity within prisons
In the case of Dharambir Vs State of UP (3 SCC 645), Honourable Supreme Court had given clear guidelines to ensure reasonable dignity to the prisoners. Some of the guidelines include, a) right to have necessary interaction with parents, relatives and friends, b) facility to lawyers for interviews, visits, and confidential communication with the prisoners, c) redressal of grievances by judges by making personal visits to jails or through representatives, d) provision of prisoner’s wall paper to ventilate the grievances, and e) proper training to prison officials about therapeutic approach and the rights of prisoners.
Prisons should provide an atmosphere that would make the inmates introspect about the factors that contributed to their predicament and awareness about the need for self-reform. For this, there is a need for institutional reform in prison administration. Properly codified prison manual and its implementation would ensure dignity for every prisoner. Reformation of prisoners will happen only in a therapeutic environment.
Prison as an Institution: Can we have a new approach?
Many times, we forget the fact that the ultimate aim of the punishments is not to be punitive but reformative. Whatever the nature of crime committed, society needs that valuable human being back as a normal person. But, as there are different categories of offences under the Penal Code, there are different types of punishments under the criminal procedure code. Therefore, there should be different type of institutions (why not call them institutions?) within the prison systems to cater to different types of offenders. The moment we realize that most of the criminal offences are committed due to pathological issues created by the society itself, we understand the logic behind naming the prisons as institutions for reformation.
Under trial persons who have committed an economic offence should go to an exclusive institution within the prison system. No productive purpose will be served by mixing them with a person accused or guilty of committing a crime of rape or murder. Although section 27 of the Prisons Act 1894 stipulates separate institutions within the prisons, the same are not implemented in its true spirit.
The prison can be an educational institution, which teaches the inmates in a rather harsh way. This should not be confused with the provision of educational opportunities to the prisoners to secure formal degrees. This is also different from the facilities provided for moral education and religious avenues, currently provided, which are of general nature. What is emphasized here is that, prisons should have specific awareness programs related to the offences committed by them. For example, a person who has committed a crime on rape should have specific awareness modules on gravity of his offence, the social, moral, psychological impact of his crime on the victim, and appropriate treatment and training to control such criminal instincts.
We should not make the prisoners worse than they were when they entered the cells. In fact, each prisoner should be a reformed man when he is released out of the jail.
And let all governments take measures to prevent any incident like what happened in Honduras!
Sibichen K Mathew
(Photo: BBC(uk)) and blackmenjail.jpg)